Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wikipedia's Days May Be Numbered

Is Wikipedia the future of journalism -- where anyone can edit the content and by sheer force of numbers and peer pressure, the truth wins out at least as often as it does in mainstream media sources?

Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman thinks not. He believes Wikipedia essentially hit on the right formula for its time, but now it's grown so popular that it will be doomed by its own success. He argued on Future Tense yesterday that:

1) The popularity of Wikipedia makes it an increasingly juicy target for spammers and vandals, who could ruin the site by posting large amounts of fake or inaccurate content, thus undermining the credibility of everything found on Wikipedia.

2) These spammers and vandals have largely been kept in check by the dedicated cadre of volunteer editors that monitor most of the content on the site, but many of these editors are likely to start losing interest in the site in the coming years as life changes confront them (getting married, new jobs, having kids, moving, etc.) and it's unclear that they will be replaced by a new generation of volunteers. All this just as the need for these editor-monitors becomes greater in the face of increasing threats to the site.

This confluence of circumstances could render Wikipedia an online ghost town, Goldman says.

Recognizing as much, the Wikipedia powers-that-be are now faced with a difficult choice: keep the site as it is -- freely editable by all -- and risk this happening, or begin to raise the drawbridge more and more -- making it more difficult for regular people to edit the site -- which would of course undermine the founding premise of Wikipedia.

The next couple years will definitely offer up an extremely interesting lesson in where journalism is heading.

It's clear that citizen journalism will become more and more important as newspapers and other media outlets continue to hemorrhage money and cut reporting staff. Plus, as technology -- like video-enabled mobile phones and Flip Video cameras -- improves, reporting will become more feasible for the regular guy or gal.

But that doesn't mean most regular guys and gals have the proper journalistic sensibilities to offer up the whole story -- not just a piece of it -- or recognize when they're being led astray by a particular source. That's where the editors come in.

My guess: Wikipedia and the New York Times are headed toward the same point -- where citizens will provide the content (just some of the content in the Times' case, all of it in Wikipedia's), but professional journalists will vet and follow up on that content with the citizen reporters before finalizing and publishing articles (in Wikipedia's case, the publishing may continue to come before the finalizing).

Don't be too scared, journalism students, there will still be some jobs for you 20 years from now.

Check out the whole interview with Eric Goldman discussing the future of Wikipedia:


  1. Did you see the Rocky Mountain News shut down? We used to get the News and the Denver Post daily. A lot more media outlets are going down as advertising dollars dry up.

  2. Lately I've noticed that Google searches I perform provide a slightly increased number of hits from Wikipedia. Some of the entries do seem factual, but I think have a point - too many hands submitting documents with the possibility of fewer editors in the future doesn't bode well for the site's credibility and survival. Wikipedia's primary setup and function, coupled with the conditions you described, are taking it out of the encyclopedia realm and into "pseudo-journalism".

    I don't click on Wikipedia's links so much anymore. I personally think that if people want to put forward their own information and perspective on something, there are other free accounts they could sign up with that could allow them to do that. Let the encyclopedia sites remain as such, and keep the more personal stuff separate. That doesn't mean that people don't ever put forward facts, but not everyone is trained to be completely objective.